The Summer of Secrets
Everyone has a summer that they remember. It could be a childhood summer of roller skates, paddling-pools and ice-cream or an adult summer of sun, sea and sangria. There are adventurous summers, rainy summers and lazy summers. Then there are the teenage summers of heightened emotions, boredom and friends. The Summer of Secrets is one of those summers.
When I received this book from the Curtis Brown book club, I thought I was settling down to a light summer read that would be a throw-away, ‘read once then ditch’ book. Not so.
Sarah Jasmon’s debut novel moves between the heady summer of 1983 and 2013, when Helen is forced to confront what happened when she was 16. It’s not a light and fluffy read, but one where events slowly unfold before your eyes and nothing is quite what it seems.
Jasmon is clever in her narrative… 1983 is told in third-person point of view, while 2013 is in first. It adds to the tension and reads as a series of flashbacks without the restricted life-view of a young 16 year-old. The older Helen seems to be a world away from the naive girl who meets Victoria Dover and her bohemian family – only in the final pages will you find out why.
Victoria and her family move into a cottage down the lane from Helen, and their lifestyles couldn’t be more different. Helen is living with her father, her mother having left some time before, and while her father seems to have fallen into a deep depression we get the feeling that Helen’s middle-class background is one of relative stability. Mick, Helen’s father, works on his boat, the only dream he has left, while Helen muddles through. Victoria is a fatherless nomad, her family moving from place to place helped by her uncle Piet, her mother is disconnected and although not physically absent is otherworldly and distant. The contrast plays out throughout the book; the Dover children, Victoria, Seth, and twins Pippa and Will, are wild and free, uninhibited by restrictions, while only child Helen is cautious and finds it difficult to step outside of society’s rigid norms.
The story is one that seems fairly gentle as you are carried through a summer of children playing and getting to know each other. Many of us have been there, met new friends and enjoyed a brief summer of play and exploration… however the attractions and adventures aren’t perhaps the same as those of Helen and Victoria. The free and easy lifestyle of the Dovers hints at past trauma and an undercurrent of despair – the dilapidated cottage by the canal, rented for the summer, is barely inhabitable but appears to be nothing new for the children. We don’t know where they came from, although the book opens with a brief snapshot of the Dover’s journey from Greece in 1973, and we don’t find out where they go.
Helen is a conformist and a nervous child, but slowly Victoria moves her towards her free and easy attitude of no boundaries… their relationship is an uneasy and toxic one. Helen seems captivated by Victoria and her lifestyle, but Victoria has the easy manipulation of a child used to getting her own way, through casual neglect. Throw in two younger adorable twins, an older more thoughtful brother and a mysterious artistic uncle and you have a recipe for an eventful summer.
Mick’s boat provides a constant backdrop for the narrative, and along with the stagnant, neglected canal the story moves along with the stalled build that slowly comes to life and reaches a shocking conclusion.
I can’t say much more about the book without adding spoilers, but let’s just say that this book is not what you would expect. It’s not a simple coming of age story, it’s not a fluffy beach read (although if you do read it on the beach beware of sunburn… you may get engrossed and lose track of time), and it’s not your usual mystery. This book is not your usual flashback book either. It’s clever and thoughtful and doesn’t answer all of your questions. In fact, it may leave you with more questions than answers.
I’d recommend taking a day off, settling down with this book and reading it in one sitting.
Published by Black Swan, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, on 13th August 2015.
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